FILM REVIEW – THE TAX COLLECTOR. With Bobby Soto, Cinthya Carmona, Shia LaBeouf, George Lopez, Jose Conejo Martin. Written and directed by David Ayer. Unrated. 95 minutes. Available on digital, on demand.
When it comes to film genres, there are films that are groundbreaking landmarks and those that pick up on already established themes and find interesting ways to explore the territory. Gangster movies and TV shows like “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos” made much of playing off the violence of its perpetrators with the seeming normality of their family lives.THE TAX COLLECTOR puts a fresh spin on this by taking us into the world of David (Bobby Soto), an enforcer for Wizard, a Latino crime boss still running things from prison.
David loves his wife (Cynthia Carmona) and two adorable children, the elder of which is preparing for her quinceañera party. Then he goes off to work where he and Creeper (Shia LaBeouf) collect payoffs from the various gangs and other criminal enterprises in their domain. The family theme plays out as we learn he is the nephew of Louis (George Lopez), overseeing things while Wizard is doing time.
David’s world is upended with the arrival of Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin), who declares he’s the future and David and Creeper can either join his team or pay the price. The price turns out to be steep, as carnage and brutality become the order of the day. (The unrated film would almost certainly deserve an R for its onscreen violence.) We’ve seen this before, of course, but what took Martin Scorsese three and a half hours in “The Irishman,” Ayer accomplishes in a taut 95 minutes.
By setting the story in today’s mean streets of Los Angeles Ayer shows that the more things change the more they stay the same. Tony Soprano might have had to make alliances with Jewish mobsters, but for David the way to control his turf is to make a pact with black gang leader Bone (Cle Sloan), to ensure they respect each other’s boundaries. Conejo is the wild card, disrupting the established order, making him a danger to everyone.
Ayer gets some solid performances here, including from LeBeouf as the stone cold Creeper and a surprisingly gritty turn from comedian Lopez. Some of Soto’s best moments are with Carmona, as she reveals why she was attracted to him and why she has stayed loyal even though she came from outside his criminal world. While not quite reaching the complexities of Edie Falco’s Carmela Soprano, she offers one of the richer performances of being married to the mob.
Perhaps most interesting to fans of the gangster film, “The Tax Collector” shows how much some things have changed even as the shootouts and betrayals remain a constant. Under the old Production Code, crime could not pay and so the antihero protagonist had to be gunned down at the end. Here, we’re invited to ask what was won and what was lost and whether it was worth it.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.